The Grammarphobia Blog

A writerly and painterly subject

Q: When, where, why, and how did such a word as “writerly” enter the writers’ writing scene? Are there some good writerly examples?

A: The adjective “writerly,” which usually means author-like or consciously literary, showed up in print in the 1950s.

A more scholarly sense appeared in the 1970s, as literary theorists began using “writerly” to describe a text with various possible interpretations.

The earliest example for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 16, 1957): “Serious Canadian writers at present are firmly resolved to concentrate upon the writerly virtues.”

The OED defines the original meaning of the adjective as “appropriate to, characteristic or worthy of a professional writer or literary man; consciously literary.”

But it’s often hard to tell from the dictionary’s examples whether “writerly” is being used to mean author-like or deliberately literary.

It can be read either way, for instance, in this  citation: “A clever and writerly book” (Spectator, Jan. 24, 1958).

As for the etymology, Oxford says “writerly” was modeled after the much older adjective “painterly,” which meant characteristic of a painter or artistic when it showed up in the late 16th century:

“It was a very white and red vertue, which you could pick out of a painterly glosse of a visage” (from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published in 1590, four years after the author’s death).

Although the OED also has two 19th-century citations for “painterly,” it says the usage was “rare before 20th cent.,” when an additional sense appeared: “Of a painting or style of painting: characterized by qualities of colour, stroke, and texture rather than of contour or line.”

The new sense showed up in Principles in Art History, M. D. Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, a 1915 work by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin: “in the painterly style of the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century.”

The phrase “in the painterly style” here is a translation of “in dem malerischen Stil.” In a note on malerisch, Hottinger explains his translation:

“This word has, in the German, two distinct meanings, one objective, a quality residing in the object, the other subjective, a mode of apprehension and creation. To avoid confusion, they have been distinguished in English as ‘picturesque’ and ‘painterly’ respectively.”

The OED’s earliest 20th-century citation for the original, “artistic” sense of “painterly” is from the Times (London, May 14, 1941): “He painted architectural subjects in a highly personal way, showing remarkable painterly gifts.”

Getting back to “writerly,” the dictionary says the scholarly sense is derived from the use of the term scriptible by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes.

In his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (The Pleasure of the Text), Barthes uses the terms lisible (readable) and scriptible (writable). Lisible texts are easily readable, while scriptible texts challenge readers.

He says the lisible texts give readers plaisir (pleasure) while the scriptible ones give them jouissance (a French term for enjoyment that can mean delight, bliss, or orgasm).

The first OED citation for “writerly” used in the academic sense is from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, a 1970 study by Barthes of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine:

“The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.” We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of Barthesian style.

In literary theory, Oxford says, “writerly” describes a text “admitting of a range of possible interpretations; demanding the active engagement of the reader.”

The dictionary adds that literary theorists usually contrast “writerly” with “readerly,” which it defines as “admitting only of a fixed interpretation; immediately comprehensible without demanding active engagement on the part of the reader.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.